In Bulgaria, Purim celebrates the day 50,000 Jews were saved

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In addition to the usual Purim customs, my family has adopted a new tradition: saying Kaddish for two Christians. This came about as an unexpected result of the year my husband and I spent in Bulgaria, where he lectured on legal ethics, and I taught English at the Ronald Lauder School in Sofia.

In retrospect, the seeds of this tradition were planted at our first Shabbat service in the

100-year-old Sofia synagogue, when I was approached by a smiling, elegantly dressed older woman. “My name is Heny Lorer,” she said, “and I am one of the saved Jews.”

Back then we knew little about Jewish Bulgarians in World War II except that 50,000 had been saved while millions of European Jews were being slaughtered. After the Sephardi-style Kiddush, I told Heny we’d heard that King Boris had “saved” the country’s Jews.

“Is that true?” I asked.

“Well,” Heny said, “it’s more complicated than that. Would you like to know what really happened?”

Of course! So from Heny — and later from 15 other saved Jews, six of their middle-age children, and four adult grandchildren — we learned about a little-known Holocaust story.

Bulgaria was a generally tolerant country over the centuries, until it became a German ally in 1941. Ignoring intense protests, Bulgaria’s Fascist government enacted its own version of Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. For the first time in the 2,000-year history of Bulgaria’s Jews, anti-Semitism became state policy.

Hitler assigned Alexander Belev, an anti-Semitic, German-trained Bulgarian lawyer, to deport all 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to killing camps in Poland — starting with a first installment of 20,000. Belev meticulously organized the first top-secret deportation. On a bitterly cold night in early March 1943, he launched a lightning attack on unsuspecting Jews (ethnic Bulgarians) living in Thrace and Macedonia. Dragged from their beds, nearly 12,000 were taken by Bulgarian trains to German ships and then to death camps in Poland. Twelve survived.

When word spread about this deportation, most Bulgarians were shocked and outraged, and spontaneous anti-government protests erupted. Meanwhile, Belev secretly scheduled the next deportation for March 9, 1943, the 14th day of Adar, Purim. In preparation, thousands of frightened Jewish citizens within Bulgaria, wearing yellow stars, had been arrested or confined to restricted areas, their property confiscated.

When Belev’s secret plan was leaked, it caused a storm of resistance from many public groups but especially two Bulgarian Orthodox Metropolitans (priests). Stefan, the head of the church in Sofia, offered Jews mass conversions and christenings to get them removed from deportation lists, and he threatened to excommunicate King Boris unless the deportations stopped. Kyril, the church head in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city, challenged the king, declaring he would throw himself on the tracks to prevent Jews from being sent to concentration camps.

On March 9, 1943, just hours before the scheduled 9 p.m. deportation, as German soldiers with trucks were lined up and waiting to arrest some 8,000 frightened Jews, King Boris canceled the order. Although other individual Bulgarians, like parliamentarian Demeter Peshev, played essential roles, the endangered Jews especially thanked Stefan and Kyril, who pitted the church against the state by interceding to save the Jews.

As visitors to Bulgaria, we happily took part in Purim celebrations: parties, plays (at the Lauder School), hamantaschen and the Megillah reading at the Sofia synagogue, festooned with colored balloons strung between red marble pillars that support the women’s section. Haman’s name was drowned out by screeching groggers, various noisemakers, shouts, stomping feet and one unfamiliar sound — lids banging on the century-old, wooden prayerbook holders.

Every March 9 since 1943, Sofia-area Jews have commemorated being saved. On that date in 2005, we saw Jewish and government officials place flowers on a memorial monument behind the Parliament building. Then Lauder School ninth-graders led the Kaddish for Stefan and Kyril. Later we also said Kaddish at the synagogue.

In 1943, the Plovdiv Jews, incarcerated all night and crammed into their 18th-century synagogue, didn’t learn the good news until the following day, so they celebrate every March 10. We recited Kaddish at the synagogue and also at the nearby Batchkovo Monastery, where Stefan and Kyril are buried. They are among 14 Bulgarians honored as Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Back in California, we remembered that our Bulgarian friends asked us to tell their story, so we presented several illustrated talks about the saved Jews and also the Jewish partisans and political prisoners who died fighting the Haman of World War II.

June Brott is a writer, editor and co-author of “Needle and Thread: A Tale of Survival from Bialystok to Paris.” She lives in Oakland.